Sheera is a Punjabi Sikh who lives off the upstairs patio. To get to the bathroom I go past his room, unless I go around the back, through the weeds. He’s staying here with his new wife, Jinko, who’s from a town outside Osaka. They were staying down the road, but they decided to extend their honeymoon by staying in this place, and saving some extra cash. She comes out of their room in pajamas, with only half her red and silver bejeweled wedding bangles, which still take up about five inches on each arm, and Sheera invites me to sit next to him in the brown plastic chair as he feels the sun.
This morning I finished the first part of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, which his wife loves, although it isn’t even her favorite Murakami novel. I told her how the skinning part with the Mongols had made me put the book down during breakfast. Sheera joked, “I’ve only read one book in his life and it was the Kama Sutra. I used to read Paulo Coelho, but after I finished reading, I couldn’t remember any of the stories.” I said, “Maybe because the stories aren’t good enough to remember.”
“Maybe, but I think it was because I am not a good reader.”
“I don’t know. If the story’s good enough, you can always remember it.”
“I have a good story for you.”
“Okay,” I said, needing a break from my own feeble storytelling and the imagined world of a Japanese master.
“I knew a man,” he began, “An American Sikh named Gaptu Singa. He used to be in the American Army. He converted after he got out. Anyway he came to India for dental work, and he also needed help with his back. I guess he came because it is cheaper than in the U.S. As you know, Indians are very friendly, so when they meet you they’ll take you out for chai. After he had his appointment with the spine specialist, the doctor invited him into his home. And in India the women serve the men at home. So Gaptu Singa saw the doctor’s wife serving him and he thought, wow, this woman treats her husband like a king. I would love to have a wife like that. So he decided to marry an Indian woman.
But arranged marriages in India are not so easy to have if you don’t have a relative doing the arranging. And because Gaptu Singa didn’t know Punjabi and didn’t have any relatives he had to go to a matchmaking service. The matchmaking service isn’t as good because they don’t know the man or the woman, all they do is make a phone call and then meet you in person and make their decisions based on that. The man Gaptu Singa went to is infamous in Amritsar. He told Gaptu Singa, you pay me three thousand rupees a month, and I’ll put an ad in the newspaper and I’ll bring you cold drinks, and take care of arranging the meeting with the girls, everything. He put an ad in the newspaper. Indian families, like most Asian families, I think, have a fantasy of meeting an American man and sending their daughter to America with him. Many girls called. The matchmaker didn’t tell Gaptu Singa that each girl who called, he charged a thousand rupees. That’s a lot of money for Indians, especially just to meet one man. He said, don’t choose the first girl, because there will be many; if you choose too soon you may miss a good one later.
This went on for three months. Eventually a few of the girls got together and realized that the matchmaker was charging them without giving them a receipt or a promise or anything. They thought that the American wasn’t going to choose anyone. So they told the police. The police told the media and the media sent a beautiful woman who knew English. These young Punjabi girls don’t know English, that’s why they’re so desperate to get married, because they’re not well educated. Good looking girls who know English have a position to stand on, so they aren’t going to choose an old man like Gaptu Singa, they’re going to choose a younger man with passion and energy. So the matchmaker charged the media woman a thousand rupees and then the police knew that the girls were serious. So when Gaptu Singa saw her he said, finally a beautiful woman who knows English. He told her the same things he told all the other girls, if we get married we can live in the U.S…And he invited her to a party the next day.
But at the party the police came and took Gaptu Singa and the matchmaker to jail. The matchmaker knew people and so he got to leave jail on the bail, but Gaptu Singa stayed, one, two weeks. And because he likes to add some masala to his story he told me that when he was in jail all the jail officers came to him and said oh, would you like some juice. When the other prisoners don’t even get water. And they have to sleep with big rats and Gaptu Singa got a separate room. The prisoners would say don’t wash your clothes, we can do that for you, because he was an American and for them it was like they had a new playmate, like they weren’t so bad if there was a white man in jail with them. So they washed his clothes. But eventually Gaptu Singa made one call to the spine doctor. He said he was in jail and he asked for help. So the doctor paid the bail and Gaptu Singa paid him back when he got out.
That was when he met me. He came into my cafe and we started talking. He told me he still wanted to marry an Indian woman and he told me if I helped him he’d pay me. So we put another ad in the paper, but this time we were more careful; he didn’t want to get caught again. One man called and asked me about him. He said his daughter was 18 but she looked like she was 22. I said Gupta Singa was 52, so it might not be such a good idea. But the father insisted. When I met him to trade pictures before the girl and Gaptu Singa meet, I saw some dates on the photos and realized that this girl was only sixteen. In India it’s illegal to marry before eighteen. So I told Gaptu Singa–”
“Wait a sec, why was his name Gaptu Singa?”
“Because that was the name given to him when he converted. His real name I think was…Charlie.”
“Okay, sorry I interrupted. Please, go on.”
“He wanted to leave Amritsar because if anyone found out about this he could go back to jail. Cheating people is a big offense, number 420. And since he already had the 420 if he got caught again, he would be in even bigger trouble. So he and I went to Chandigarh.
On the bus to Chandigarh there was a young girl he started talking to. She was a speed demon. She loved to drive fast. Chandigarh is India’s most Western city, with big wide roads, and it’s very expensive, so that an apartment costs 50,000 rupees a month, as much as a big city, except there the apartment is much bigger. So he and I rented an apartment and he kept seeing this girl. One day she took us driving and man, she was like a Formula One racer. She thought it was fun because she was young, like 22, but we were scared. She kept saying Gaptu Singa, will you buy me a car and he would say, no I won’t because I am not going to live here and I don’t want to bring it back with me to the U.S. Eventually he realized, this girl is too young for me and all she wants are material things.
So we decided to go North to Rishikesh. That was where the Beatles went to learn sitar. We went to a monastery where we could stay for free and the first day we got there Gaptu Singa fell in love with the woman who worked there! Except she was… what’s the word…?”
“Yes. She was celibate. And Gaptu Singa wanted to marry her! So we stayed there for a week, and he paid for us, even though it was all donation. And he would sit, like this,” and here Sheera crossed his legs, and reached out his arms as if holding the scales of justice, “and say, Sheera, this is perfect, she likes to teach. I like to meditate. We can stay here and mediate for weeks, and she and I can talk. But finally I told him there was no way he was going to marry her. She had to be celibate for the monastery. So we stayed maybe a couple more weeks until he realized this and then we went on. This was a good time. I worked for him and he paid me pretty well. I had my own room and I was free most of the time to relax.
Then when we came to Dharamshala, on the first day he met a Thai woman, who was 35 and who had an ashram in Bangkok. They would meditate together and he was happy, she was happy. But she needed money to keep her ashram going. And he would sit, and Sheera crossed his legs again and imitated Gaptu Singa with his hands extended, “and say Sheera, this girl is perfect, she will teach yoga, I will teach meditation, she needs money, I can give her money. Let’s move to Bangkok. And I would say, I’m not going to Bangkok with you, I have my own life here! So he said, okay, okay, I will go to Bangkok. It will be perfect. And he was very happy planning like this.
Meanwhile I had to go back to Chandigarh to get all of his bags. They were this high and this wide. Man he was a pain in the ass. And then every month we were going to court to try to get his passport back because he had been here for a year and every month they would say come back next month.”
“Wait a second, they took his passport?”
“When you go to jail here, they make a hole in your passport. To get an exit visa is very complicated. So he said, “Sheera I want you to help me escape from India. You’ve been to Nepal. I said yes I’ve been to Nepal. He said, you know all the places to go. I said yes I know all the places to go. He said, can you help me sneak out of India. I said no, I’m not going to sneak you out of India, if I get caught I’ll go to jail! So he came to my room and he said, Sheera I will pay you very well. Please. So I said okay.
So we drove across the Nepalese border and stayed in a hotel where I knew the owner. Then the owner of the hotel took his passport, because he had gone to the U.S. Embassy and bought a new one, and he took it to the Indian embassy and told them my hotel guest lost his old passport and had to get a new one and they believed it and gave him a new visa. So when he was all ready to leave, he paid me and it wasn’t enough. SoI said Gaptu Singa, you should give me more money. But he said, Sheera, I’m sorry but I’m broke. So I said, okay fine, maybe the ticket from Kathmandu to the U.S. was very expensive. And I dropped him off at the airport and he left.
“So he didn’t go to Bangkok with the Thai woman?”
“No. When he left I thought about calling him to see if he made it through customs, but I realized if he didn’t he would’ve called me! Then a few months later he sent a writer to me to write his story. I took her to all the same places. She was very good. I would tell her a hundred words and she would write a thousand. Her name was Katie…Something. She was very good. And she paid me very well. And that’s it, that’s the end. So if you see a book about Gaptu Singa, you can know the story before you read it.”
And after reading one frame narrated story earlier this morning, I decided to try relating my own. I told Sheera, “Good story. I’m going to try to write it all down now before I forget.”
“I thought if it’s a good enough story you won’t forget,” he said.
“Of course, of course,” I said, “But I need to remember how you told it.”
I wonder why Gaptu Singa really came to India, if it was to find a wife, or just to have an adventure after living his life and getting into middle-age and realizing he wanted something more. He never really harmed anyone, that was the doing of his matchmaker. But he never really gave anything to humanity either, except his story. Maybe that’s enough.